A Mother and her Two Daughters

28 December 2010

My Post-Holiday Crash

Yesterday my father held my hand and gave me permission to feel bad, and to admit to my family and friends that I’m not feeling so well.  So, here it goes . . .

I’m not feeling very well right now. 

I’m exhausted, completely running on empty, a full-blown post-holiday crash.  I’m not certain how much of it has to do with radiation treatment, the busy holidays or a combination of both.  It’s not so much a physical body exhaustion like the chemo treatment days.  It’s more like an incredible need to sleep, and often.  I fell asleep at Christmas Even service, and yesterday I fell asleep on the radiation treatment table. 

Add to the exhaustion a terrible night of nausea that kept me up until 4 am Monday morning.  I’m certain that this was a normal stomach virus, not related to the radiation treatment.  When my stomach finally settled down, it was only three short hours before I had to be at CARTI for radiation treatment.  I could barely walk, much less drive myself to treatment.  Thank goodness for Dad who is usually awake quite early and was eager to help by driving me to CARTI, a much safer arrangement for everyone involved.  After treatment, I came back home and slept until 2:15 in the afternoon.  That’s right – I slept most of the day away.  This isn’t my usual approach to life; but then again, what is “usual” anymore.  The doctors warned me that fatigue is normal during this time. 

One of the smartest things I’ve done in a while was a strategic move to conserve what little energy I have, and the nice folks at CARTI were more than willing to help.  Instead of leaving each morning for CARTI at 6:30 am, my treatment time has been rescheduled for 10 am.  I’m certain this will work much better with my internal body clock. 

I’m taking it slow, being careful about how I expend what little energy I have.  When I feel active and alert, I’m getting life done, with the help of Denver, Sarah Beth and other great colleagues; and when I’m tired, I’m giving in to fatigue and sleeping.  Thanks to Tim and two cups of coffee Sunday night, I was able to get out and see “The King’s Speech”, a movie I’ve been very excited about seeing.  How fortunate I am to have Tim, family and colleagues who are empathetic and accommodating to my energy highs and lows. 

In the meantime, I’m making plans for 2011.  For Christmas my family gave me a collection of Southwest Airline gift cards.  While 2010 was the year of countless trips to UAMS, this next year I’m anxious for different kinds of trips, the real kind – to board airplanes and explore new destinations.  I’m not yet sure where I’m going, but it sure is fun searching.  No doubt, for me, 2011 will be a better year.  At least that’s the plan. 

25 December 2010

This Year Give Love

It’s early Christmas morning.  Anna-Lee is still nestled all snug in her bed, Allyson & Jeff making the long track from St. Louis, due here in Little Rock about 1:00.  Of course I have the fireplace lit-up, the tree too.  Abbey is wearing the Christmas collar I purchased this week, all cuddled up by me on the sofa. 

It’s a beautiful morning, and I cannot help but think about Christmases past. 

Last night, sitting in the midnight service at my church, I couldn’t help but remember the decades of attending this service, especially the first year when my parents decided Mike and I were old enough to stay up late to be there.  Goodness, I felt so grown-up.  It was a very special milestone in my life. 

This morning I’ve had time to remember so many other special memories, like the Christmas Eve night Dad took us out for an evening car ride to see if we could spot Santa up in the sky.  We definitely saw him that night, in the sky, and I will never to be convinced otherwise. 

Then there was the white flocked tree that Mom so loved back in the late 60s - heavy as a house.  One morning it fell on top of brother Mike, ornaments and all.  Mom was in a total panic, and I’m almost sure that Dad was laughing as he man-handled the tree off his son.  No doubt this was the last year we had a flocked tree.   

But no matter the years, no matter the stories, Mom and Dad always made the Christ child the center of our festivities.  Our family caroled to the homebound, adopted children and families in need, and we always had an advent wreath and choreographed our own family service each Sunday night.  As Dad always said, Christmas was the time to celebrate the birth of a child that would change the world.  I will forever be grateful to my mom and dad for such meaningful Christmastime memories.  

Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us. (Matthew 1:23). 

Why would our Creator come as a baby born in a manger in Bethlehem, instead of presenting himself with power and majesty?  Why would he make himself into the human flesh, as a man who would live among us, knowing that Jesus would be born to suffer and die? 

The answer is love.  God became a man embodied in Christ so that we might experience his intimate love and understand the plans he has for us – as children and parents, as friends and neighbors, teachers and mentors, community leaders and activists. 

So today we celebrate the incarnation of Jesus – out of flesh born. 

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.  (Luke 2:13-14)

Yesterday my friend Kate hung on my door a beautiful handmade letterpress sign made by her.  She has extraordinary talent, not to mention the soulful woman that she is and shares so freely with her friends.  The message on Kate's sign, now mine, says it all – This Year Give Love.  One Size Fits All. 

Yes mam, Kate!  You are so right.  Thank you for the gentle reminder about what Christmas is really about – it’s all about love. 

Merry Christmas • Peace on Earth • Salvation and Justice for Humankind!  May the Christmas spirit of love to all live among us today and everyday.  

22 December 2010

A Letter to My Friend with Breast Cancer

Dear Dian,

Sue shared with me the good news about your surgery and the pathology report – clear margins and no cancer in the lymph nodes.  Yippee!  If there's such a thing as “good news” when it comes to cancer, you’ve hit the jackpot baby!  Me and you both! 

I cried thinking about everything we've been through this year.  It wasn’t exactly the year we had in mind, was it?  Could we even count how many hours, how many days we’ve spent in waiting rooms, clinics, examining rooms and hospitals?  And how could we even begin to count the many sleepless nights, or the days when we couldn’t keep our eyes open.  And while our bodies ached from the side effects of surgeries and cancer-fighting drugs, we never let it interrupt or damage our souls.  In fact, if anything, our souls have been stretched. 

We’ve heard it over and over again this year: “Cancer sure helps you put life into better perspective.”  It’s really become quite the cliché.  But you know what?  I think you and me have had a pretty darned good outlook on life and the human experience, long before cancer invaded our bodies.  We’ve always been strong women, fiercely determined mothers.  Our grit and resolve has likely propelled us to successfully maneuver through this very tough year.  And let’s not forget our abiding faith in God and the comfort we have found in Him. 

And He will raise you up on eagle's wings,
Bear you on the breath of dawn,
Make you to shine like the sun,
And hold you in the palm of His Hand

You and I both know that suffering is a universal experience, not exclusive to cancer.  Anyone who believes they should be immune from adversity, misfortune or ill health is simply not living in reality.  Undeserved suffering, in one form or another, goes with the territory; it’s a part of the human experience as any other aspect of life.  When sorrow comes, why would we dare ask “why me?” – unless we ask the same question when happy times come our way.  But you and me - we’ve turned our pain into wisdom and we’ll always be the better for it. 

We did it, Dian! We’ve been tough cookies this year, you and me – stronger than all the locomotives on the train tracks.  We’re still here, and we have every reason to believe we’re going to be here next year and the next, and the one after that.  I’m thinking we should start talking about the nursing home and maybe even being roommates, because I think we’re going to live at least one hundred years, maybe older.  How does that sound, Dian?  Like fun, huh?  And we’ll make sure that Jan and Sue and Dennie and our other girlfriends join us too.  What fun old ladies we’ll be – you, and me and the rest of our gal pals.  Remember what Charlie Saxon used to say?  “Let’s get naked and dance in the street with our hair on fire.”  Yes, that will be all of us. 

Yippee for you.  Yippee for me!  I love you Dian, and my only wish for you right now is to do what makes you feel good, to be with those who give you energy, and to be sparing with your limited energy.  Oh yes, and to be comforted by the love of God.  If we stay in control of our body, our mind and our faith, the healing will happen much quicker. 

Hey, you know what?  I think you’re great.  I care about you immensely, I love you very much and I’m here for you in whatever way you might need me. 

Have a Merry Christmas, Dian, and a Happy New Year too.  Here’s to a better 2011, 2012, 2013 . . .

With much love,

21 December 2010

It's Never Too Late . . .

My friend Nancy, also a breast cancer survivor, passes this along tonight.  Amen Nancy!  I think those of us who have plunged into the depths of a life-threatening diagnosis can understand.

For what it's worth: it's never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There's no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you're proud of. If you find that you're not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.   

             - Benjamin Button
             The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

I've been very busy the past several days.  This past weekend was my niece Olivia's wedding - my brother Mike's youngest daughter.  It was a special weekend quite full of  ceremony and family festivities.  And we could not have witnessed anything more beautiful than the marriage of Olivia and her new husband, Jon Abernathy.

I've also been quite busy with daily radiation treatments (side effects seem to be minimal at this point) and the planning of the 2011 Arkansas Governor's Inauguration, scheduled for January 10th and 11th.  I love keeping busy with life - it all feels good!

Hope you are all taking the time to slow down and enjoy the holidays!

17 December 2010

The Seed of Hope

It was over 2,000 years ago when Plato claimed a direct correlation between the mind, the body and one’s health: "The cure of many diseases is unknown to physicians because they are ignorant of the whole. For the part can never be well unless the whole is well.” 

Every survivor forever remembers the life-changing news – “You have cancer.”  When the words are uttered, it is an overwhelming crash of emotions – fear, anxiety, hopelessness, worry and so many unanswered questions.    

The biology of cancer is often beyond our control. However, many physicians are convinced that patients with positive attitudes and a fighting spirit are better able to cope with disease-related problems and may respond better to therapy.  Oncologists and other physicians that treat life-threatening diseases have oftentimes shared stories of two patients of similar age and with the same diagnosis and treatment program who experience vastly different results. The major difference – one patient was pessimistic and the other optimistic.

The questions then become:  What is it that helps a patient approach their disease in an aggressive fighting posture, where they no longer see themselves as a helpless victim?  How do you help patients become active partners with their medical support team in the fight for successful treatment, disease improvement, remission or cure?

In the end, the goal is to nurture an increased ability to cope that nurtures the will to live.  It’s called HOPE. 

Hope is the mental state that motivates us to keep on living, to explore and dream and continue to accomplish things and succeed.  With hope, a positive outlook can be maintained, determination strengthened, coping skills sharpened, and love and support more freely given and received.

When we possess the true spirit of hope, we then know that while we may not be able to control the surf, we can learn how to best ride the waves. 


People living with cancer experience many different milestones – completion of various treatments, successful surgeries and more.  And when the protocol is complete, many survivors feel a strong desire to celebrate the accomplishment.  Woohoo – I’ve made it! 

So can I take a moment to laud my cancer treatment center?  UAMS is doing so much to give cancer patients that sense of hope. 

Inside the atrium at Winthrop Rockefeller Cancer Institute, visitors will see The Seed of Hope sculpture.  It has already become a place of significance for UAMS cancer patients.  Not only is it a beautiful work of art, it’s also a symbol of hope. 

On your final day of active treatment, UAMS celebrates this milestone with each patient and their family.   Two seed-shaped tokens are presented to each survivor - one token is tossed into the vessel-like sculpture as a celebration of survivorship; the second token is kept as a reminder of your successful battle against cancer.  What a lovely way to celebrate endurance, to honor the gift of hope. 

And this week, UAMS launched a new web site – The Seed of Hope.  This site is a culmination of hopeful stories by strong cancer survivors treated at UAMS. 

Be warned, there are some tear-jerking stories found here.  I was especially moved by the story of Emily and Fuller Ingram.  Emily was diagnosed this past April with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  At the time she was twenty weeks pregnant and was told by her oncologist that she would likely have to terminate the pregnancy.  Emily sought a second opinion at UAMS.  On September 14th, after seven chemotherapy treatments, she gave birth to a healthy baby boy, and on November 19th, Emily received her final treatment and celebrated her remission by tossing her own Seed of Hope into the sculpture. 

Then there is the story of Deb Darley, a multiple myeloma survivor from Georgia.  In March of this year, Deb’s physician told her that she wouldn’t live past July, and was encouraged to seek Hospice services.  Instead, she came to UAMS, and in September tossed her token into the sculpture.  After a second stem cell transplant, she has no measureable cancer in her body. 

If you need a lift, a story of hope, this UAMS web site is tremendous.  I’m sharing with you, and you can share with others who might need a bit of courage, the will to survive, a semblance of hope. 

Keep on fighting the good fight!  There is hope! 


Click here for the Seed of Hope Web site:

15 December 2010

The Spirit of Resilience

re·sil·ience  (noun)
1. the ability to recover quickly, as from misfortune.

It has taken me a week to express my sadness about the death of Elizabeth Edwards.  So many emotions were conjured up for many of us, especially women, and especially those of us who’ve had breast cancer.  In all honesty, I’ve felt very discouraged that today’s treatments weren’t strong enough to control the cancer and save her life. 

For me, Elizabeth Edwards wasn’t a political icon.  Instead, she was an image of courage and grace, the exemplar of a tireless champion for women facing so many of life’s personal challenges – the sorrow from losing a loved one, the anguish of a body weakening disease and the challenges of betrayal.  She shared her many life obstacles with openness and great dignity that allowed us to connect with her on a very personal level.  For women who experienced the same life hurdles, she gave us hope to push forward and survive. 

Edwards faced unimaginable tragedy in her storied life.  And while others might have thrown in the towel, given in to the many heartbreaking days, she never stopped being a protective mother, a spirited advocate for the less fortunate, a champion for health care and an inspiration to so many.  

When talking about the disease, Edwards always said her battle was not with cancer. Her battle was making every day meaningful and full of joy. And like every other battle she fought, she won. She maintained her happiness, her joy and her unquenchable passion for making the world a better place until the very end.

She got much comfort from her belief in the resilient spirit. In her own words: “Resilience is accepting your new reality, even if it’s less good than the one you had before. You can fight it, you can do nothing but scream about what you’ve lost, or you can accept that and try to put together something that’s good.”

The language of the resilient spirit is I AM, I HAVE, I CAN.  And so was the life of Elizabeth Edwards.  If we could all carry with us a piece of her tenacity, focus and resilience, life and death would be perceived as a much better place. 

13 December 2010

Random Thoughts About Radiation

 Yes, it’s almost 5 a.m. and I’m up and getting ready for the week.  It’s a busy one – client meetings and projects, more planning for the upcoming Inaugural festivities, and I still have much to do in order to be ready for Christmas.  Anna-Lee is home and activity has picked up considerably here at my house.   

Cancer treatment doesn’t take away from the many other responsibilities of life.  All of this is good – life goes on. 

In about 90 minutes I’ll be at my new home away from home – CARTI.  For those who know me well, you know that being anywhere at 6:30 a.m. does not come naturally for me.  While I’m often awake in the early morning hours, I’ve often said that my body requires me to crescendo into my day.  Before I leave the house, morning tasks usually include several cups of coffee, reading the newspaper, checking emails and a few Internet news sites, tidying up the house, maybe even a little cooking to get ready for an evening meal.  So, in order to crescendo into radiation, I’ve decided to develop another routine – get a shower, put on some sweats, go to Starbucks for a morning coffee, then take off for CARTI.  This seems to be a better plan than what Tim came up with – getting dressed and ready the night before and parking my car in front of CARTI with a thermos of hot coffee. 


I’ve long heard that radiation treatment usually creates skin conditions similar to a severe sunburn.  Well, on Thursday I learned that the trauma to the skin can be far worse.  During my first visit to CARTI Thursday, my waiting room companions included two lovely women, both of them in their sixth week of radiation treatment, one with skin cancers on her neck, the other with breast cancer.  They were both very lovely ladies, but both of them were experiencing radiation burns – peeling skin, raw and open skin in some areas.  Ouch! 

I decided to do a little research, get my skin prepared to NOT have this outcome.  So, I’m now putting 100% aloe gel on my skin area several times each day.  I’m hoping this will help.  We’ll wait and see . . .


Friday night we went to a Christmas party.  Everything was perfect – the home, the delicious food, all the good friends.  Everything was going well – until it hit me.  The nausea.  We quickly left, and the rest of this story will just go untold.  Let me just say it was not a good night.  I spent all day Saturday at home, most of Sunday too.  Nursed my stomach with too many ginger ales and that’s about it, little food.  Tim read where nausea is a sometime side effect of radiation, especially in the beginning stages of treatment.  It’s difficult to comprehend as I always thought nausea was more closely tied to chemotherapy – and I only had nausea ONE DAY during chemo. 


So who was it that told me that radiation is nothing – especially compared to chemotherapy?  Thinking back, it has usually been well-meaning people who have never had cancer or radiation therapy. 

As I go through this final treatment protocol, I’ll continue to remind myself that all of this is only temporary, and stay focused on the benefits that radiation will give me  – only 26 more treatments. 

10 December 2010

CARTI – my new home away from home

Yesterday began my six-week journey with CARTI/UAMS, and hopefully the final protocol with my cancer treatment.  Talk about the best of both worlds colliding, these two organizations host a state-of-the-art facility on the UAMS campus that has all that you could ask for in a radiation center. 

Central Arkansas Radiation Therapy Institute has been around for almost as long as I can remember. Since 1976, they have provided leading-edge radiation therapy to every patient referred for treatment, without regard for the ability to pay.  In fact, last year I served as Chair of corporate sponsorships for their annual Tux ‘n Trees gala, a lavish holiday fundraising event that honored First Lady Ginger Beebe.  I would have never dreamed then that exactly a year later I would become a patient, a recipient of this magical radiation that will seep into my body and hopefully help prevent an IBC recurrence. 

Yesterday I posted on my Facebook that the facility reminded me of the Hot Springs bathhouses, without the radiation part.  I’m sure I confused friends with this comparison.  Let me explain. 

When you arrive to UAMS/CARTI, you are ushered into a dressing area complete with a private dressing area, lockers, a lavatory and a comfortable waiting area complete with magazines to read.  Sitting there amongst a nice group of other women waiting on their treatment too, it hit me . . . Where are the man?  Don’t men receive radiation treatment too?  Of course, I asked, and was then told that the men have their own dressing and waiting area next door to the women. 

After taking all this in, and for whatever reason, I was reminded of the Arlington Hotel Spa that pretty much provides the same in preparation for your bath and massage, complete with two separate waiting areas for men and women. 

The nice young men and women on my treatment team have already won my heart.  They are professional, pleasant and even sometimes humorous.  I’ve already received two treatments – yesterday afternoon and early this morning – and I already feel quite at home. 

The process is rather simple, especially when compared with the hours long chemotherapy process.  I change into my robe, get onto a table, they spend about three to four minutes adjusting my body in an exact position to receive the high-energy radiation beams.  And while all of this is happening, you can listen to some good tunes making it a fairly pleasant experience.  This morning I arrived at 6:30 am, and was back in my car headed home at 6:50.  Amazing! 

Someone asked me yesterday, do you have to expose your breasts during the process.  The truth is, I’m so used to exposing my breasts to strangers, I could probably go to church topless and not even feel awkward about it.  That prompted one of my Baptist colleagues to respond that if I carried this out, she would likely move her membership to my Methodist church for one day.  HA!  (And to my church friends – not to worry; another deranged comparison on my part.)

While CARTI has made the process itself rather simple, receiving radiation treatment is obviously another hurdle in the entire cancer protocol.  More on that subject later.  In the meantime, how fortunate we are in this lifetime to have a very targeted therapy like radiation that kills cancer cells, posing very little risk to the body’s other normal cells. 

Let the radiation begin!  Here’s to killing cancer! 

06 December 2010

Eight Blue Dots, and counting . . .

Today I had my blue dot moment.  My radiation therapists, Cynthia and Michael, gently inked the tiny blue marks on my chest and under my arms.  They are temporary tattoos that let them know where the radiation beams should go each day – 25 to 28 days. 

I had a choice of colors, so I asked for red.  Because it's Christmas, I thought it might be nice to have my dots match my tree.  No red, but four other choices – green, black, purple and pink.  No gold or silver either.  So I just stayed with the traditional color blue. 

In the days ahead I will begin external beam radiation therapy.  This cancer treatment uses high doses of radiation to kill cancer cells.  In my case, hopefully there are still no cancer cells in my body, and the treatment will be used as adjuvant therapy – to prevent recurrence of the cancer.  Five years and I’m home free, isn’t that what they say?  I hope so.  I like to think of this treatment as double life insurance.  One year, two years, three years and counting . . . 

The Governor and First Lady asked me again to plan the upcoming Inaugural festivities, asked me if I was physically up for doing that.  Of course I am - I'm as strong as an ox, and nearly as smart.  I managed the planning four years ago and this year will be much easier because I know what I'm doing this time.  I shared with him that I would have blue dots on my chest and neck area during the celebration.  The Governor said, “No problem.  We’ll just buy you a blue feather boa.  You'll match your new tattoos.”  I’ll now wait on my feather boa.  I only need one.  

More treatment means more days and weeks of counting.  I’ve spent this entire year counting – 8 chemotherapy treatments, 3 days of pre-chemo tablets, Vitamin D levels of 50 or more, counting white blood cells, 8 pills a day, Arimidex for five years, 17 lymph nodes removed, six saline injections – and now 8 blue dots for 25 to 28 radiation treatments.  I guess I’ll keep on counting. 

As I lay there on the scanner this morning, wearing my new blue dots, I couldn’t help but wonder . . . What will life be like when we live in a world without cancer, when we can quit counting and counting and counting?

05 December 2010

With Much Thanks to the Immortal Henrietta Lacks

This weekend Anna-Lee came home to prepare for finals and to write a term paper for her English class.  The term paper is part of a University of Arkansas campus-wide initiative called The One Book…One Community Project.  It’s a noble effort to unite the UA campus and the local community through a shared learning experience. All incoming freshmen have participated by reading the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and so have numerous book clubs across northwest Arkansas.  In October, Anna-Lee and many others were privileged to visit with and hear a lecture by the author, Rebecca Skloot. 

As Anna-Lee shared with me the story of Henrietta Lacks, I quickly realized this to be a remarkable and true-life story about an African-American woman who died in 1951 at the age of 31, who has helped millions around the world through the study of the cells that killed her.  HeLa cells—an abbreviation of her name, Henrietta Lacks—are cervical cancer cells that were taken from her body and subsequently preserved, grown, and maintained in laboratories across the world. Due to their unique ability to continue replicating – the first immortal human cell line ever grown in culture – these remarkable cells have been used for medical breakthroughs and scientific advances all across the world, among them the cure for polio and the development of cancer research and treatments, in addition to other treatments for leukemia, AIDS, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease.  Since they were removed from her body in 1951, scientists have grown more than 20 tons of her cells. 

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is more than a story of her short life, her cancer and the scientific research and advances made by the HeLa cells.  In addition, the story also has a strong ethical angel to it unraveled by the author.  These unique cells were taken from Henrietta Lack’s body without her consent, and shared the world over without the consent of her family.  As the story continues to unfold we soon realize that millions of people have been helped by scientific discoveries made through HeLa cells; we become enlightened about the billions of dollars made by drug companies and research labs from pharmaceutical developments using her cells.  And all the while, Henrietta Lacks’ children and descendents remain in dire financial straits in their impoverished Baltimore neighborhood.  Until this past year, Henrietta Lacks remained buried in an unmarked grave in her hometown in south central Virginia.  Almost sixty years later, on May 29, she was remembered with a tombstone that her family could never afford, a gift from Morehouse College of Medicine in Atlanta.  The tombstone reads:

Henrietta Lacks, August 01, 1920-October 04, 1951.  
In loving memory of a phenomenal woman, wife and mother who touched the lives of many. 
Here lies Henrietta Lacks (HeLa).  Her immortal cells will continue to help mankind forever.
Eternal Love and Admiration, From Your Family 

If you haven’t read this book and you’re looking for something to read, or maybe even buy as a holiday gift, this story is amazing.  It’s an amazing story to learn more about the scientific research engendered by Henrietta’s cells, as well as the difficult ethical controversies they sparked.

Thank you Henrietta for your life-saving contributions to the world of modern medicine.  Count me among the many who will remain forever grateful.  

29 November 2010

Moving Ahead with Radiation Therapy

The end of this long road is near - I hope.  Other than the five years of taking Arimidex each day, my final cancer treatment plan will be 25 to 28 rounds of radiation therapy. 

Today I met with Dr. Kenneth Gardner, M.D., the CARTI/UAMS radiologist who will oversee my treatment.  What a lovely man, brilliant too with a wicked sense of humor.  If it’s possible, Dr. Gardner and his very pleasant team seem to be the best candidates for making radiation therapy a bit more fun, and certainly very interesting.  I learned much today. 

In my particular case, radiation therapy is referred to as Adjuvant Therapy – designed to reduce the risk of cancer returning by killing cancer cells that may still be lingering in the body undetected.  Some friends have asked why I need to continue with this step – “If you’re cancer is gone, why would you have more treatment that might make you temporarily feel unwell to treat cancer that you don’t have?”  That’s what adjuvant treatment is all about.  It’s very similar to an insurance policy. When you pay your premiums to the insurance company, you’re recognizing a potential risk to your home or your life that may or may not.  Like insurance, radiation treatment will just increase my chances to close the door on cancer. 

The name for this overall treatment approach – chemotherapy combined with radiation therapy – is often referred to as Combination Therapy. As Dr. Gardner explained to me today, two studies have shown that combining chemotherapy and radiation dramatically increases the survival rates among women who have had mastectomies. The first study, from Denmark, found that cancer grew back in only 9 percent of women treated with both therapies compared to 32 percent of women treated with chemotherapy alone. The other study, from Canada and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, reported equally impressive results: After 15 years combination therapy patients had 33 percent less chance of the cancer coming back and 29 percent less chance of dying from breast cancer. 

I think you would agree – this combination therapy is a no-brainer for me, especially since I’m at a higher risk for recurrence.  As Dr. Makhoul and Dr. Gardner have explained, my higher risk is due to three factors: 
·      First:  I was diagnosed with Inflammatory Breast Cancer, a very aggressive cancer with a high recurrence rate.
·      Second:  My mass was larger than 4 centimeters.  Mine was actually between 6 and 7 centimeters.
·      Third:  My breast cancer had also invaded the lymphatic system. 

So, next Monday I’ll return to CARTI/UAMS for some special measurements, and then have the infamous blue dot tattoos placed on my right breast and neck area.  WOW, my very first tattoos!  On Wednesday, I’ll begin my daily radiation treatments, five days a week for about six weeks. 

All of this is to say, as each month passes, I feel more and more confident that I’ve whipped this cancer for good.  And while IBC recurrence rates are high, modern medicine and brilliant physician care are gradually lessoning my chances for this nasty cancer to rear its ugly head again.

And all of this makes me smile!  

27 November 2010

Mayhem & Management from One Tiny Pill – Living with Arimidex

Last night was one of the worst.  It started at about 2:00 am.  Bone pain in my feet and legs so horrific that even the bed covers draped over my legs caused terrible discomfort.  I try very hard not to take prescription pain pills as I’ve taken so many the past six months, so I did my best to endure it with meditation and over-the-counter meds in hopes that the throbbing would go away.  Nothing seemed to work.  So at noon today I finally broke down and took the power meds. 

Aromatase inhibitors (AIs) have quickly become standard treatments for women like me - postmenopausal with estrogen-receptor-positive breast cancer.  Searching for answers today on how I can get this pain to go away, I happened upon a study launched by Breast Cancer Action in 2005, with the final results released in 2008 – Side Effects Revisited:  Women’s Experiences with Aromatase Inhibitors.  The majority of women (83.4%) reported that they were taking an AI like Arimidex for the same reason as me - to reduce the risk of a breast cancer recurrence.

The results, taken from 1,200 women who took Arimidex (also known as anastrozole), are enlightening, especially when you’ve been up most of the night with this terrible pain:
·      64 percent of respondents complained of bone pain,
·      Almost 60 percent had muscle pain,
·      48 percent indicated “mental fuzziness” as a side effect,
·      Over 40 percent had weight gain,
·      31 percent experienced depression, and
·      The number one side effect (67%) was hot flashes.

Ninety-six percent of respondents complained of at least one or more of the 38 total side effects listed in the study.  One woman who participated in the study said, This is quite a difficult choice to make between quality of life and fear of recurrence! Help us please find another way.”  Another respondent said, “Severe joint pain. Extreme fatigue.  Hot flashes. Felt like I was 80 years old rather than 43.”

There are many days that I do feel physically exhausted, especially if I've really pushed myself with a terribly busy schedule that requires lots of physical participation, and I mean simply walking, standing, etc.  I always suffer later.  But days like today, and nights like last night are the worst.  I can endure exhaustion, but pain is another story.  So, it’s easy to understand why some women choose to quit the Arimidex treatment regime.  

One women in the survey said, I wanted my life back. My family said I had lost my spirit.”  In the waiting room at the UAMS oncology clinic, I recently met another breast cancer fighter who had just thrown in the towel on Arimidex and is now taking Tamoxifen.  Again, I can understand.  

But here’s what I know to be true:

The results of an 8-year multinational study called the Arimidex, Tamoxifen, Alone or in Combination (ATAC) trial involving over 6,000 women, showed that women taking Arimidex had better outcomes than women taking Tamoxifen.  

The study worked like this - following breast cancer treatment with surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of these primary treatments, the patients were randomly allocated to receive Arimidex, Tamoxifen or both drugs for 5 years.  The results showed that 5 years of Arimdex is better than 5 years of Tamoxifen for:
·      increasing the time before the cancer comes back
·      reducing the risk of the cancer spreading to other parts of the body

How do you define quality of life?  Well, for me, it IS life.  If Tamoxifen is not as effective at reducing the cancer recurrence risk, I’m staying with Arimidex.  For me, the benefits of life far outweigh the discomfort of bone and muscle pain, even if this will be my destiny for the next five years. 

My next search . . . effective pain management techniques.  Any and all suggestions are welcome, especially from Arimidex veterans.   

25 November 2010

Thanksgiving 2010 – with many thanks . . .

During Thanksgivings past, I’ve always taken time to give thanks for my many blessings – the blessings of family, friends, my community and for living in this wonderful country we call America. 

But this year, as I sit here reflecting on another Thanksgiving day, an inventory of life seems embedded in my mind.  This year I am much more keenly aware of my many blessings.  I’ve often said that this has been one of my worst years, and one of my best. 

I am so grateful for the love of my two beautiful girls who have given to me so much of their love and themselves, without “the ask.”  Allyson and Anna-Lee have had to endure much this past year but have shown incredible strength and the ability to truly pass along powerful love to their old momma – love that will forever be cherished and always remembered.  As all parents feel, to describe the love we have for our children is almost impossible.  This year it feels like “times ten.”  How truly thankful I am that God graced me with these two extraordinary young women.

Tim is always top of my mind.  What would I have done without him, without his always-steady demeanor, his encouragement and positive outlook, and his support for my occasional break-downs.  Not to mention how many dinners he has prepared, my home he has helped me to manage, the countless doctor appointments he’s been to, and the numerous procedures, chemotherapy treatments and three surgeries where he has always been right there by my side.  What a lucky woman I am to have Tim.  His stoic strength has been my gift. 

Mom and Dad, brother Mike and Aunt Alice – their unwavering optimism and support have made this time much more bearable.  Whether it’s been countless errands and driving me around town, helping me keep the house clean, a dinner outing or dropping me off a delicious take-out meal, taking care of Abbey and the kitties, or taking care of my girls so I could focus on the cancer and treatments – they have been extraordinary, and I couldn’t have done this year without them by my side. 

I give thanks for brilliant doctors – Suzanne Klimberg, Issam Makhoul, James Yuen and so many others on my cancer team at UAMS.  Not only have they given me compassionate care and their very best, they have eradicated cancer from my body and made me feel whole again.  I am also grateful for the many nurses who have cared for me with immeasurable tenderness and sincerity; nurses like Nurse B, Michelle, Carla, and Dot Bonner.  It was Dot who made me truly realize that we are all connected – never forget that.  Everyone at UAMS has treated me as Stacy, not breast cancer patient #999.  For all of my team at UAMS, I will always love you. 

I am grateful for friends who so unselfishly give of their love when I was in abject need of support.  Friends who call, who visit, who send cards and text messages in the middle of the day to offer comfort.  Dinner parties and birthday celebrations, lovely gifts and scarves and hats and wigs (some serious and some not so serious) - I'm grateful for their unwavering optimism in the face of fear and their good cheer and reassurance during physical pain and sometimes heartache.  Among my friends, we have always given much to one another.  This year, they have expected nothing from me in return.  And for this I am very thankful. 

And how could I go through this day without being forever grateful to my team and colleagues at CJRW.  WOW – they have been phenomenal by stepping in to support me, my love for the work, my passion for getting it right.  They share that passion and have made this year so much easier for me at the expense of their own time to be home with their families.  But in addition, they have shared meals, planted flowers, weeded the beds, vacuumed the carpets, drew funny cartoons, played the guitar and sang me beautiful songs.  I don’t think all cancer patients are fortunate enough to have colleague like mine.  Wayne and Shelby, Bucky and Mr. C, Rebecca and Jordan, Denver and Jay, Jennifer and Teresa, Brenda and Darryl and Sam, all of them!  They are the best and will always be remembered. 

And last, I give thanks for hair, albeit a new shade of salt & pepper.  I promise to never complain about my hair – every stitch on my head, and my eyelashes and eyebrows too.  Hair is good, especially when you’re a woman! 

This year the world, my own world, has rendered me speechless and almost incapacitated with humility.  The love of family, friends, doctors and colleagues, and even strangers has been overwhelming.  I truly believe that it is this love that has given me an optimistic spirit, the courage and strength and incredible will to kick cancer’s butt. 

Today I know that I every day will be my own Thanksgiving.  Yes, I will celebrate the holiday with family.  But as I’ve told you before, for many months now I wake up each morning and give thanks for yesterday, today, tomorrow, and all the days ahead. 

What a blessed year!  Happy Thanksgiving to you all!  Now, on to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade! 

P.S.  I really felt better writing this reflection of thanks – a new tradition to do each year.  You might think about writing your own list of all that you are thankful for. 

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